When a river is a person: from Ecuador to New Zealand
New Zealand passed its first rights for nature law in March 2017. In the early 2000s, the idea of giving legal rights to nature was on the fringes of environmental legal theory and public consciousness. There, the Whanganui River, which flows across the North Island, has been granted rights of personhood. That means the river can act as a person in a court of law; it has legal standing.
If the Whanganui had the right to flow in a certain way, for example, then any change to its course would be a violation of its rights. Absent this kind of right, the river is simply empowered to stand for itself in court; its legal guardians determine the positive content of its rights.
By granting natural entities personhood one by one and assigning them specific guardians, over time New Zealand could drastically change an ossified legal system that still sees oceans, mountains and forests primarily as property, guaranteeing nature its day in court.